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The MP3 Revolution -- Page Two (of two)

Located on the northern edge of San Diego, MP3.com is an alternative version of the music business, based entirely on MP3, personal computers, and the Internet. MP3.com provides music over the Internet. Not one note belongs to the members of the RIAA. Instead, MP3.com allows musicians who can't or won't get contracts with record labels to upload their own music onto the company's computers for free. In return the musicians must provide one song that the public can download gratis. If listeners like that song, they can click a button and order a CD by the artist. The CDs are stamped out on demand‚ uploaded as files, and mailed directly to customers' homes. MP3.com gives its artists half the price of the CD. No overhead, no overstocking, no complicated royalty arrangements -- and, perhaps most important, no A&R.

A&R is music-industry lingo for "artists and repertoire." It refers to that part of the business involved with selecting and marketing musicians. Because a large number of different composers and performers cannot be promoted simultaneously by a single organization, the studios' A&R departments perforce function as gatekeepers, choosing a small number of musicians on whom to lavish attention and spurning the rest. MP3.com, by contrast, doesn't market its bands, and hence doesn't discriminate among them. The most inept crew -- the group I played drums for in college, for example -- can upload its music and have it presented by MP3.com in exactly the same way that the Web site presents expert professional musicians. "The difference is that the market for your group will be smaller than the market for the group with talent," says Michael Robertson, the founder of MP3.com. "You might be able to convince a few friends and relatives to buy your CD from us, but the other group, if it's any good, has a chance to get some word of mouth going."

Word of mouth? Isn't this treading close to one of the major intellectual debates around the Web? As readers of last fall's Atlantic Unbound roundtable discussion on copyright may recall, John Perry Barlow -- cattle rancher, Grateful Dead lyricist, civil-liberties activist, and Internet theoretician -- argued that cyberspace, "like any ecosystem, [is] developing a remarkable ability to collectively distinguish nutrients from toxins." On the Net, Barlow posited, gatekeepers like music studios and book publishers are not needed to select and present the best works, because "millions of people are conducting this great edit." Much or most of what appears online is trivial, but the best is always sorted out in an invisible sifting performed by countless minds. "Worthy material that might not pass through one narrow cultural filter," Barlow wrote, "may well be discovered and massively reproduced by another" to the benefit of all. In a way unlike any other entity on the Net, MP3.com is hoping to harness that "great edit" to make money for itself and for thousands of musicians.

The studios, for their part, scoff at the notion. "What are they going to do?" asks Jeffrey Neuberger, an attorney who represents several major labels. "Present you with an undifferentiated mass of music, most of which is garbage, and let you randomly browse through it, on the theory that maybe you might find something you like?" In Neuberger's view, the need for A&R is almost too obvious to be worth discussing.

I confess to having some sympathy for this view. But a recent visit to MP3.com headquarters gave me pause. Begun with next to no publicity -- "hardly even a business plan," Robertson says -- it is now adding 140 bands a day, and doubling its load of music every two months. The company's workforce has quintupled since the beginning of the year. Its Web pages receive more than two million page views a day, and the number keeps rising. The offices have expanded so rapidly that when I commented to Robertson about the unusual, polygonal sconces in the hallway he stared at them in surprise and then confessed he had been so busy that he had hardly looked around the new offices.

At the least, MP3.com is an empirical experiment that will test both Barlow's rosy predictions and the skepticism of people like me. If the experiment succeeds, it will create hundreds or thousands of word-of-mouth musical communities. In so doing, it just might introduce to the world something ... old. Very old, in fact.

The Italian comic playwright Dario Fo, winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize for Literature, has spent his career studying giullari, the medieval European song-and-dance performers who wandered from village to village, entertaining the citizenry. Because of the poor communications infrastructure of the time, the giullari were necessarily restricted to small areas. Simple necessity, Fo says, kept performers close to their audiences. If they could not attract a dedicated base of fans, they had no means of survival. Failure to know their public could have unpleasant personal consequences.

At least at first glance, the parallels of the giullari with MP3.com-style music are startling. If this new method of distributing music becomes important, our musical culture will fragment even more than it already has. There may still be a few hugely popular artists -- the Michael Jacksons and Luciano Pavarottis of tomorrow -- but the rest will form hundreds of little cyberspace principalities of song, each with its separate base of support. To avoid being lost in the ether online, musicians will have to cultivate their public closely. Indeed, MP3.com is setting up a service that will allow bands to e-mail everyone who has bought their CDs. Rock stars today live like Howard Hughes, providing their audience when not onstage with only fleeting glimpses of themselves at photo-ops for E! and Spin. No more aloofness in the future; instead of hiding from fans, the Jimmy Pages and The Edges of the future will be down at the mall, letting toddlers plunk on their Gibsons and Les Pauls.

It's hard to say whether such a change would be bad or good. But it is worth noting that Fo believes that the time of the giullari lasted from about the sixth century to about the fifteenth -- almost a millennium. In his view, the giullari are the long-standing natural models for performance, the way things are supposed to be: a relationship between artist and audience that he has spent decades campaigning for. Our own system of megastudios and megastars is, he believes, an aberration; a "parenthesis," as the Italians like to say. It is tempting to imagine Fo -- a genial, balding man with a booming laugh -- visiting MP3.com and foraging through the free music with a smile, browsing for hours as the spreading electronic network conducts us into the musical past. Maybe, by chance, he'll even listen to my band, if I can find any of our tapes in the attic.

Join the conversation in the Technology & Digital Culture conference of Post & Riposte.

More on Technology and Digital Culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Charles C. Mann is a contributing editor of The Atlantic Monthly. His cover story on the future of intellectual property, "Who Will Own Your Next Good Idea?" (September 1998), has been nominated for the 1999 National Magazine Award for Reporting.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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